Michaeline: Basic Stories

Orpheus taking Eurydice out of hell

There’s the story shape of Orpheus and Eurydice — true love, man falls into a pit of despair, then literal hell, manages to rise out of the hole only to lose everything at the last minute. Wah!! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, I surfed my way through a bunch of great links about story. First, you should watch this hilarious YouTube video of Kurt Vonnegut explaining three basic story structures.

This article from the Atlantic expands those three structures to six.

I think, in a way, it’s quite easy to reduce stories down to basic structures. It’s a fun human thing to do. There’s the old, “All stories are either ‘someone comes to town’ or ‘somebody leaves town’” which is pretty fun to play with a bunch of people who share your taste in books. Very, very few books start in the same place with the same people and never change setting or cast. The closest I can think of is “Our Town” – but even with that story, there’s a new girl in the cemetery, and she is the catalyst for the stories that come next.

Anyway, intellectually, one of my favorites of the Atlantic’s six is “Man in a Hole”. I tend to be allergic to the downer starts of a “Rags to Riches” story. If I see an orphan in the first three paragraphs, there better be some damn fine cover art and blurbs to reassure me that this isn’t going to be a slog through misery. With “Man in a Hole”, the protag starts out in a pretty good place. I get to know him or her, I care about what happens, and then BOOM, by the time the author nastily drops us all down a hole, we are attached and we want to know the ending.

I would say that generally, I want a story to go somewhere – preferably Up on the Good Fortune/Ill Fortune axis. I say that, but I’ve read several stories this year where the characters don’t really make great strides anywhere. It seems to be a feature of many stories in the literary genre. Willa Cather does a great job of making interesting stories where the characters start in the middle of the axis creating a home on the frontier, have a dip due to a family tragedy, and then climb right back up to mildly satisfied with a tough life. (Or is that Man in a Hole again?)

On the other hand, I read a novel where the mildly bitter and unhappy disabled man manages to stay mildly bitter and unhappy except for a few spikes for sex, and then winds up a slightly more bitter and unhappy disabled man. I was so mad at that author. It was a defeatist book that chased its own tail and said, “Look, nothing really matters anyway. Biology will win.” Perhaps the book needed more curve to be satisfying – a higher high, and it could have been an Icarus – a low, high, low curve on our fiction graph. What I really would have loved to see, though, is good old Man in a Hole with a few extra bumps thrown in. I wish the hero could have gotten the girl, and a baby, and all the things that were dangled just out of his reach.

Anyway, I hope you’ll take a look at these links and find them as interesting as I do. I’m a little skeptical about identifying curves and such before one writes the book. I think they just happen, and then in our editing process, we can identify and strengthen them as necessary. As an editing tool, I think the curve theory can be great. (-: And it’s the scenery along the curve that’s going to make or break the book.

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: Basic Stories

  1. Structure can be such a tricky thing, I don’t necessarily agree it’s limited to six options. It seems to me anything non-linear would fall outside these shapes, unless you reassembled a story to be linear to see where it falls on this list, but then it’s no longer the author’s structure. Fun food for thought, though, and it made me ponder romance structures a bit. Rags to riches, mostly, at least from an emotional standpoint? Or maybe Cinderella?

    • Yeah, I think most real-life structure is a sort of wave-form, and in fiction, we artificially cut it off in different places. Sometimes it starts in the middle, then goes up and down, or whatever.

      There is a structure that I’ve seen that looks like a ski lift. The main story (maybe a hike in the woods, or a rafting down a river) is the cable that supports the story, and then the gondolas are various flashbacks or memories triggered by the trip. Not exactly linear, but not randomly patterned, either. Kind of a hybrid.

      Structure is a lot of fun to think about. So many different ways to do it! And if one method doesn’t work, well, there are about 20 other theorists out there who have different methods to try (-:.

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