Saturday, February 14, 2009

Meta Structure

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.


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?


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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Kathryn Magendie said...

I defin need to get caught up here! Am so behind.

Hmm, in fact, I am going to add this to my "getting to know us" blog this morning....let me be quick about it!

Kathryn Magendie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
laughingwolf said...

super tips, thank you alexandra :D

BT said...

You have confused me a little on this one. Good stories tend to line up in a manner I could think of as "this just had to be told this way". Apart from a different POV, which would give a completely different story, wouldn't all good stories fit into this.

JAWS - A man who escapes the big smoke to live on an island even though he's afraid of the water has his idealic community held hostage by a shark. He has to over come those fears to successfully deal with the problem at hand so he hires Quint, and goes out on the water, has an extended fight with the shark and then blows it up.

How else could you tell that story? Apart from in greater detail and with better characterization than I just have, etc, etc. It is a complete story from beginning to end.

So why isn't there a metastucture in there?

I like the expanding toolbox, it gets me off everytime I read it...

Sorry, back to the topic at hand--, err, sorry...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Kat! Always great to see you. Thanks for the nice post on your blog, which I love, even when I don't post!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hmm, given feedback I'm afraid I've confused more people than I've helped with this post. It's not the easiest concept.

BT, I really wouldn't say that JAWS has a meta structure. It's high concept, but the way you just pitched it is in hindsight, knowing the story that that author and the filmmakers told.

But if I tell you the pitch: "a man repeats the same day of his life over and over until he gets it right" - don't you get exactly what you would have to do to write that?

The unifying principle is unique and crystal clear to anyone who hears it.

Maybe I just have to figure out a better way to say this!

Bobby Mangahas said...

I'm slightly confused here, but I think I may have a vague idea, Going off your Agatha Christie example, I THINK there might be a meta structure in AND THEN THERE WERE NONE: 10 guests are invited to a remote island under some sort of pretense and then are picked off one by one.

Samantha said...

I'm lagging a little on the posts, Alex. But I just wanted to let you know that I am about 10,000 words into my very first novel and that your posts (which I now have in a big binder) have been a great help along the way. Thanks so much :)

BT said...

Yep - I get the high concept bit and agree with how you've put it across.

So does it come down to a single pitch line when put across, conjures a single way to visualize a story. So the verbalization of the high concept results in only one way to actually tell the whole thing?

A shark holding a tourism based island hostage does not give me the idea for JAWS, where as two people on different sides of the country are brought together over one child's interaction with a late night radio show to find true love, pretty much can only be told one way.

I think the theory works well with stories heavily reliant on the past for its conclusion. Finding tales which don't need the past, like Sleepless is a little more difficult.

Films like Forrest Gump, The Usual Suspects, Terminator, and The Wizard of Oz can all only be told as they were told because of the endings. Forrest at the bus stop tells the story of how he came to be there so it has to happen in a certain way, The Usual Suspects uses the creative genius of the mastermind to create a back story from all the objects in a detectives room, and to make it believable it has to happen a certain way. Terminator needs to cover off particular points so it can only happen a certain way, and Dorothy has to follow a road and achieve particular goals.

In fact thinking about it, only Sleepless doesn't seem to fit this general need to have a back story and particular plot points it needs to meet.

Let me think of another: What about Frankenstein? A doctor obsessed with science being the spark of life creates a monster from spare parts, but forgets about man's need to be loved and accepted.

I think that's right. I had to go a long way back to find that one.

Highlander, Stand by Me, Rambo, The Bourne Ultimatum, and The Philadelphia Story all have an identifiable High Concept tag line, I think, but they all rely on an in depth back story to carry them.

Does any of my rambling make sense?

Can you give me examples and explanations of stories that don't need a back story to make them fit this definition?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

No, it's not so much a single pitch line, although a single pitch line comes easily from these stories.

It's the organizing principle.

Let me try saying it this way.

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL uses the structure of four weddings and a funeral. The structure IS four weddings and a funeral.

GROUNDHOG DAY uses the structure of seeing the same day in a man's life, lived over and over again.

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE uses the structure of two people falling in love despite the fact that they don't meet until the last scene.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE uses the structure of a high-stakes game show in which each question reveals a major event in the contestant/ protagonist's life.

(Or that each major event in the protagonist's life answers a question in the game show).

Of those examples, only SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is really back story intensive.

It's about the overall organizing principle.

Barry said...

I've dropped in from Kathryn's blog and realize I'm at the end (or deep middle) of an extended discussion.

Perhaps I should go find the front door and come in that way because it looks like some interesting stuff is going on here.

K. Keith Johnson said...

If I am getting this. . . It’s really about metaphor and parallels’?
If you follow through with the metaphor to the end, then you have told your story. Or am I just lost ????

Luzid said...

Let's see if I grasp this... might another example be FIGHT CLUB?

We suspect, from the title alone, that the story revolves around it. And it does. Major scenes take place involving it: the first fight outside the bar that gives rise to the idea, the fight nights that evolve into Project Mayhem, the expansion of the club into "franchises", and the biggest fight of all -- the one inside the protagonist's own mind.

The concept suggests that to tell this story right you must enter the world of a fight club, and almost become a member on the periphery, a witness to the brutality of self-delusion. Maybe even a participant -- when I saw the film in the theater, *everyone* came out looking at each other as if they wanted to fight.

BT said...

This is going to be one of those elusive things for me to grasp - like pinning down a theme, but that's a whole other problem.

So, regardless of actual content, the underlying story can only be told one way.

Sleepless is based on a love story of two people miles apart who fall in love but don't get together until the end. So the fact that the story was told as a boy phoning into a radio station and the story of his dad catching the imagination of women all over the country, eventually resulting in Meg Ryan becoming involved to the point where they fall in love, and then finally meet as they both try to find the boy (I think, it's been a while since I've seen it), isn't the crux of this method.

It could have been a friend getting onto a popular forum and telling everyone about his best friend who was a great person to the point of capturing the interest of many and then the best friend getting into some sort of issue which forced the two people together at the very end.

A bad example maybe, but the structure follows a similar path because to write a story of that nature, it has to move along similar lines.

Am I getting warm?

Gayle Carline said...

Okay, I think I might get it, altho I can't explain it. Would Rashomon count?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

R.J., sorry, I somehow missed your post till now. I've been traveling.

Yes, I think you're right about AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. That was such a meta-structure that it really created a whole subgenre.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Welcome, Barry! Yes, you really should work your way through the posts. There are links on the right hand side of the blog under "Writing Articles".

And you probably don't want to start with THIS post, which is even confusing me! ;)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Keith! I don't think of it so much of metaphor, although you could say that the structure of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a metaphor.

Let me try this again.

If I had a premise line like FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, I would instantly be able to outline it, based on a structure like this:

ACT ONE - A wedding.

ACT TWO, part one: Another wedding

ACT TWO, part two: Another wedding, and someone dies, which leads to the darkest moment - a funeral.

Act THREE - another wedding, at which everything is resolved.

Meta structure is the Godsend that tells you exactly how to outline and write your story.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Luzid, I think the fight club is the central image for FIGHT CLUB, but not a meta structure.

But YES, Gayle, YES - RASHOMON is a great example of meta structure:

The film tells the story of an attack and rape from the three different points of view of the three participants, proving that no one ever sees anything the same way.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

BT - for a great example of how the same story of SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE could be told, you should look at the French film it's based on - And Now My Love, (Toute une vie), by writer/director Claude Lelouch

Same organizing principle. Vastly different films. But both using the same unique meta structure.

Gayle Carline said...

Let me see if I can explain what I think you're talking about... meta structure seems to be a specific framework in which to tell a story. So you don't write, "A happened, then B, and finally C." You want A-B-C to happen, but within another device. I'm thinking that When Harry Met Sally might qualify. Reiner could have told a very straightforward tale of two people who fall in love over a long period of time. But by framing their courtship within interviews of other couples, and showing slices of their meetings, we get a different perspective of their relationship, and of relationships in general. And a straightforward approach might have been boring.

Am I getting warm here?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle writes: "meta structure seems to be a specific framework in which to tell a story. So you don't write, "A happened, then B, and finally C." You want A-B-C to happen, but within another device."

That's a very good summation. I'm not sure I would call the interviews in "When Harry Met Sally" a meta structure - that's a device used often in film, in fact, I just saw it used in "He's Just Not That Into You". It certainly can be a useful technique.
"Reds" is another good example, right?

But listen, TRULY, I am hardly the final authority on all this! I'm just trying to explore a structural technique that, if you find one that works for your story, can bring a deeper level of meaning to your story, and/or help you tell it more simply and clearly, and/or just make the damn thing a little easier to write!

Gayle Carline said...

OK, I'm sure you're just ready to be done with this topic and move on, but I've been swamped with family matters this week (all good) and now need to ask one more question: Apart from Murder on the Orient Express, what are examples of BOOKS having meta structure? (I know Slumdog Millionaire is a book, but I haven't read it and I understand it isn't quite the same as the movie.)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

No, I'm not done with any topic as long as people still have questions. Really, any one of these articles - always feel free to go back and ask questions.

Good question, Gayle.

The novel Q & A ,by Vikas Swarup, on which SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is based, is very different from the movie but the structure of every major event in the hero's life answering every question in the quiz show is all from the novel.

Agatha Christie's book TEN LITTLE INDIANS (film AND THEN THERE WERE NONE) is also a meta-structure (and as I said, spawned a whole sub-genre).

It's not as easy for me to think of novels because I haven't thought enough about it. Meta structures in novels can be fairy tale structure or take structure from classic plays or works - HUCK FINN arguably steals meta structure from THE ODYSSEY and BRIDGET JONES' DIARY steals meta structure from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

But those examples, to me, are not as compact as the film examples we've been talking about.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...
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