Michille: Narrative Structure

Save the CatMy son and a friend have been talking about writing a movie. They are 17. So they had no idea where to start so I gave my son my Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. I loosely use it myself, but it is structured in three acts and is focused on movies and I prefer five acts and novels. Plus, I use Joseph Campbell’s 17 stages of the Hero’s Journey as my overall structure (that is also three acts, but I break my story up by the major turning points). Discussing this with my son brought back the research on structure I did for my master’s thesis.

For that, I looked at dramatic structure through time. One of the required courses was Ancient World. Many of the texts we read followed a three-act structure similar to what Aristotle defined in approximately 335 BCE as having a beginning, middle, and end (or protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe) regardless of whether it was tragedy or comedy, epic or play. The three-act structure prevailed until Horace advocated a 5-act structure in his Ars Poetica in approximately 19 BCE.

Playwrights and dramatists began experimenting with four-act and eight-act structures during the renaissance, but the act structure reverted in 1863 with Gustav Freytag’s Die Technik des Dramas, which presented a definitive study of a five-act structure. This has become known as Freytag’s pyramid. Freytag’s five acts consist of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. Contemporary popular fiction has since done away with the exposition as this is usually background or backstory that is now considered undesirable up front in a story.

Epic structure opens by stating the theme or cause of the epic, the praepositio. This may take the form of a purpose, a question, or a situation. In The Iliad, the theme was stated in the first word: Rage. The epic opens in the middle of the action – In medias res – with the hero at his lowest point with flashbacks showing earlier portions of the story. The epic also includes enumeratio or lists of objects, places, and people that place the action of the epic within a broader, universal context. The use of epithets, or repetition of stock phrases, like Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea.” The epic hero illustrates traits, performs deeds, and exemplifies certain morals that are valued by the society the epic originates from. Many epic heroes are recurring characters in the legends of their native culture.

Tragedy starts with a prologue, or dialog, preceding the entry of the chorus, which presents the tragedy’s topic. In Antigone, this is the scene when Antigone and Ismene set up the conflict of the play by discussing the new law of burial. This is followed by the parode, or entrance ode, in which the chorus enters and sings and dances to express a point of theme or history to the audience. Although called an entrance ode, other choral odes occur during a Greek tragedy. There are then several episodes (typically 3-5) in which one or two actors interact with the chorus. Each episode is terminated by a stasimon, or stationary song which is another choral ode in which the chorus comments on or reacts to the preceding episode. The tragedy ends with an exode (exit ode).

There are 17 stages of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, divided into three acts: separation, initiation, and return. Few stories contain all 17 stages, but do follow the general pattern of the call to adventure in the hero’s world, the trials in the other world, and the return to the hero’s ordinary world with a significant change to the hero. Dante’s Inferno is an example of the completed hero’s journey. The hero’s journey has become a standard structure that popular fiction and screen plays use.

Constraints in writing have been guiding writers and readers since Aristotle first defined the three-act structure. The constraints inform the genre or subject matter, and in more practical terms, the placement in the marketplace of the books by agents, editors and publishing houses. Constraints are defined beforehand as a guideline to the creative process that defines the elements that inform the genre.

Aristotle espoused a three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end. Freytag had a five-act structure with an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Popular fiction follows a four-act structure divided by distinct turning points that separate the action. A story starts with an inciting incident that leads the reader into act one. Act two begins after a scene where the conflict escalates and the protagonist’s world changes, usually for the worse. The second act ends with the point of no return for the protagonist and the start of act three. The crisis moves the story from act three to four and ends with the final turning point or climax. This four-act structure takes Aristotle’s middle act and turns it into to two separate acts for the purpose of increasing pacing of the story. Alternately, the four-act structure removes act one from Freytag’s pyramid as an unnecessary convention.

So a few dinner-table discussions about story led me down memory lane and has also amped up my motivation to get writing. And more specifically, to go back to my first manuscript and overlay good story structure on an abysmal story. Actually, I still love the underlying story, but I wrote it before I studied craft and have never revisited it. I think it’s time.

2 thoughts on “Michille: Narrative Structure

  1. (-: Back to school! After a long vacation, I’m back to writing too, and struggling with backstory and infodumping. I “know” that’s it’s OK to have infodumping in a first draft just so I know what the story is. But it feels wasteful.

    Exposition used to be such an important step. Who did exposition really well? What exposition has stood the test of time? I think modern literature of all genres are very concerned with “everyman” dramas, so in some sense, everyone has lived the backstory or a similar backstory. It’s enough to drop a few marked states. But with something like science fiction, or fantasy, backstory/infodumping/exposition can be very important. Not everyone is a New Elf, for example. Or a duggle-lumper on a mining ship bound for Antares Tertia. That kind of stuff needs explanation.

    But it’s equally important to do it in an interesting fashion so it’s not boring or skimmable.

    Good subject for more thought!

    • One of the reasons I couldn’t write science fiction and fantasy is the world building – and doing it without the big info dump of “so here is how this world is set up.” That takes a very particular skill set. Linda Howard does a lot of narrative exposition.

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