I think that the best thing that you can do to help yourself with story structure is to look at and compare in depth 5-10 (ten being best!) stories – films, novels, and plays - that are similar in kind (or structural pattern) to yours. Because different kinds of stories have different and very specific structural arcs, and those structures have their own unique and essential elements which are incredibly useful to be aware of so you can use them for yourself.
The KIND of story a story is does not always have anything to do with genre. Let me use a couple of movie examples to illustrate this.
- What genre would you call Inception? Something like a sci-fi thriller, right? It’s futuristic, it uses dream technology, it has thriller elements and action… but what really drives Inception is that it’s a caper story (you could also say a heist, or reverse heist), like The Sting, Ocean’s 11, Armageddon, The Hot Rock, and Topkapi. The structure of Inception is a professional dream burglar gathering a team of professionals to pull off a big job, then training for and executing that job. That’s the action of the story. And that’s what made Inception stand out: it crosses a caper story with a sci-fi thriller.
- The Hangover (the brilliant first one, I mean) is a guy comedy. But the structure of the story is a traditional mystery: the groom has gone missing during a wild blackout night of a bachelor party, and his friends have to follow the clues to piece together what happened that night and get the groom back (before the wedding!). The action of the story is unraveling that mystery. So if you’re writing a story like The Hangover, you want to be looking at how mysteries are put together just as much as you want to be learning from comedies.
- Leap Year is a romantic comedy, but the structure of the story is a road trip: the action of the story is a journey across Ireland. And if you’re writing a road trip story you can learn a lot from taking a look at road trip stories in all genres: Planes, Trains and Automobiles, It Happened One Night, Thelma and Louise, even Natural Born Killers.
So while it’s important to know the general, Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure (which we'll be reviewing next), and it’s important to know the patterns of the particular genre you’re writing in, it’s sometimes even more useful to identify the KIND of story you’re writing within that genre.
Once you know the kind of story you’re writing, you can look at examples of that particular story pattern and get a sense of the structural elements and tricks common to that story pattern – the key scenes a reader wants and expects to see in these stories. A Mistaken Identity story, for example, will almost always have threat of discovery, a confidante who knows the score, numerous tests of the hero/ine’s story, scenes of trapping the hero/ine into the role, scenes of the role starting to backfire, and of course, a big unmasking scene, usually at the climax of Act III. Identifying these expected scenes and taking a look at how other storytellers have handled them is a great way of brainstorming unique and fun scenes of your own (See Tootsie, While You Were Sleeping, Roman Holiday).
So what are these story types?
The late and much-missed Blake Snyder said that all film stories break down into just ten patterns that he outlined in his Save The Cat! books. Dramatist Georges Polti claimed there are Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and outlined those in his classic book.
I think those books on the subject are truly useful; as I say often, I think you should read everything. But I believe you also have to get much more specific than ten plots or even thirty-six.
(I also think it’s plainly lazy to use someone else’s analysis of a story pattern instead of identifying your own. Relying on anyone else’s analysis, and that for sure includes mine, is not going to make you the writer you want to be.)
Personally, I think there are hundreds of story types and kinds.
For example, in a workshop I taught recently, there was a reluctant witness story, a wartime romance story, an ensemble mystery plot, a mentor plot, a heroine in disguise plot, a high school sleuth story. And others.
Each of those stories has a story pattern that you could force into one of ten general overall patterns – I guess – but they also have unique qualities that would get completely lost in such a generalization. And all of those stories could also be categorized in other ways besides “reluctant witness” or “hero in disguise”.
Harry Potter is what you could call a King Arthur story – the Chosen One coming into his or her own (also see Star Wars, The Matrix…) but it is told as a traditional mystery, with clues and red herrings and the three kids playing detectives (high school sleuth). It’s also got strong fairy tale elements. So if you’re writing a story that combines those three (and more) types of stories, looking at examples of any of those types of stories is going to help you brainstorm and structure your own story.
If you find you’re writing a “reluctant witness” story, whether it’s a detective story, a sci-fi setting, a period piece, or a romance, it’s extremely useful to look at other stories you like that fall into that “reluctant witness” category – like Witness, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Conspiracy Theory, Someone To Watch Over Me, Collateral.
If you’re writing a mentor plot, you could take a look at The Princess Diaries, Silence of the Lambs, Searching For Bobby Fischer, An Officer And A Gentleman, Dirty Dancing - all stories in completely different genres with strong mentor plot lines, with vastly different mentor types.
A Mysterious Stranger or Traveling Angel story has a very specific plotline, too: a “fixer” character comes into the life of a main character, or characters, and turns it upside down – for the good. And the main character, not the Mysterious Stranger, is the one with the character arc (look at Mary Poppins, Shane, Nanny McPhee, and Lee Child's Jack Reacher books).
A Cinderella story, well, where do you even start? Pretty Woman, Cinderella of course, Arthur, Rebecca, Suspicion, Maid in Manhattan, Slumdog Millionaire, Notting Hill.
A deal with the devil story: The Firm, Silence of the Lambs, Damn Yankees, The Little Mermaid, Rosemary’s Baby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Devil’s Advocate.
And you might violently disagree with some of my examples, or have a completely different designation for what kind of story some of the above are…
But that is exactly my point. You have to create your own definitions of types of stories, and find your own examples to help you learn what works in those stories. All of writing is about creating your own rules and believing in them.
So this is what I'm trying to say. Identifying genres is not enough. Identifying categories of stories is not enough. Knowing how general story structure works is not enough. What’s the kind of story you’re writing – by your own definition?
When you start to get specific about that, that’s when your writing starts to get truly interesting.
And when you look at great examples of the type of story you're writing, you'll find yourself coming up with your own, specific story elements checklist, that goes much farther than a general story elements checklist ever could.
Here are just a few dozen examples to get you started brainstorming types of stories
Caper/Heist/Con (Inception, Topkapi, Ocean’s 11, Armageddon)
Mythic Journey or Hero’s Journey (The Wizard of Oz, Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars)
Mentor story (Karate Kid, Good Will Hunting, Dirty Dancing, Silence Of The Lambs, An Officer And A Gentleman, The King’s Speech)
Mystery (too many to list!)
Cinderella story (Notting Hill, Slumdog Millionaire, Pretty Woman, Titanic)
The Soul Journey (Eat Pray Love, The Razor’s Edge, Lost Horizon)
MacGuffin story (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Maltese Falcon, Romancing The Stone)
Mistaken Identity or False Identity (Tootsie, While You Were Sleeping, Sommersby, Beloved, Roman Holiday, You’ve Got Mail)
The Wrong Man (Hitchcock loved to do this type of thriller, with an innocent falsely accused, or set up: The Wrong Man, North By Northwest)
Forbidden Love (Lost In Translation, Butterfield 8, Casablanca, Sea Of Love, Someone To Watch Over Me, Water For Elephants, Roman Holiday)
Mysterious Stranger or Traveling Angel (Mary Poppins, Shane, the Reacher books, Mrs. Doubtfire, Nanny McPhee)
Three Brothers (The Godfather, The Deerhunter, Mystic River)
Reluctant Witness (Witness, Conspiracy Theory, Someone To Watch Over Me)
Wartime Romance (Casablanca, From Here To Eternity, Gone With The Wind)
High School Sleuth (Brick, Twilight, Harry Potter stories)
Trapped (Die Hard, The Poseidon Adventure)
The Wrong Brother - or Wrong Sister (While You Were Sleeping, Holiday)
Road Trip (Leap Year; Natural Born Killers; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; It Happened One Night; Thelma and Louise.)
Fairy Tale (there are dozens of sub-genres here, including Cinderella, the Animal Groom, The Three Brothers, The Journey To Find The Lost Loved One, etc.)
Epic (Gone With the Wind, Gladiator)
Monster in the house (Alien, The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, The Haunting)
The Roommate From Hell (or best friend from hell, first date from hell, neighbor from hell: Fatal Attraction, Morningside Heights, Single White Female, The Roommate)
Redemption (Groundhog Day, Jaws)
Hero Falls (Chinatown, The Godfather, The Shining)
Alternate Reality (It’s A Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day, Back To The Future)
A variation of this is “The Road Not Taken” story (Sliding Doors, Family Man)
Chase/On The Run (The Fugitive, Thelma And Louise, Natural Born Killers)
Lovers Handcuffed Together (Leap Year, What Happens In Vegas, The Proposal)
Enemies Handcuffed Together (The Defiant Ones)
Gaslight (Gaslight, So Evil My Love, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death)
Alien Attack (Signs, The Day The World Ended, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers)
Slasher (or - Ten Little Indians, which was the play and film that started off that genre)
Changeling Child (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Orphan)
Man Against Nature (Jaws, Twister)
Fish Out Of Water (The Proposal, New In Town)
Ensemble Mystery Plot (Murder On The Orient Express, The Last of Laura)
Ensemble Romance (Four Weddings And A Funeral)
Impostor (While You Were Sleeping, Tootsie)
The Therapeutic Journey (Good Will Hunting, The Sixth Sense, The King’s Speech)
Unreliable Narrator (The Usual Suspects, Fallen, The Sixth Sense)
A Man’s Gotta Do What A Man’s Gotta Do (Jaws, High Noon)
Descent Into Madness (Apocalypse Now, The Shining, Black Swan, Sunset Boulevard)
And that doesn’t even scratch the surface! Are you starting to get the idea? Have you even already thought of a few of your own that I haven’t listed?
Create your own names for them – just like I did above. There’s no right or wrong, here. And the story types you notice are the ones you’re likely to be attracted to in your own writing.
So - what kind of story are you writing? And do you have other examples of the kinds of stories I've listed above, or other kinds of stories to add to the list?
And if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.
I do full breakdowns of The Matrix, The Wizard of Oz, Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, Sense and Sensibility, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, and The Mist - and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Stealing Hollywood.
I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.
- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)
- Amazon US
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
- Amazon DE
I also recommend that you sign up for my Story Structure mailing list to receive movie breakdowns, story structure articles, and other bonus materials.
(This mailing list is NOT the same as the RSS feed of the blog - you must opt in to this list to receive the extras mailings.)