by Ann Marie Williams © 2020
If you’ve been reading my last few posts, you already know that each day this week I’m taking a look at one of the following terms: concept, plot, structure, format, and theme. I’ll give my explanation of the terms, their role in storytelling, and how they interrelate with each other (because, even though each term represents a different attribute of story, they each affect one another — structure affects plot, plot affects theme, and so on).
Today’s topic is: STRUCTURE
To quickly recap: Monday I discussed how concept is the idea that allows for the plot to exist. And yesterday I talked about how plot is the story itself (the events that unfold from start to finish).
So, if concept is idea, and plot is story… then structure deals with how you tell the story. In other words:
Structure is the framework used to convey the plot.
Said differently, plot pertains to what the moments in a story are, structure pertains to when those moments happen.
For example, what the inciting incident is falls under plot. When that inciting incident occurs falls under structure (this could pertain to both how the story unfolds for the characters, as well as how the story unfolds for the audience).
Overall, stories typically unfold for the characters and the audience at the same time and in the same, linear, order. But not always.
Exceptions, for example, would include flashbacks and internal reflections, because the event in the flashback or rumination happened to the character before it’s conveyed to the audience.
Similarly, you can tell a story with a linear timeline — but not reveal information at the same time the protagonist acquires the information.
For example, there could be a scene in which the audience learns the motives of the antagonist before the protagonist determines what’s happening. Or maybe the audience knows the protagonist has formulated a plan, but the audience doesn’t know what that plan is yet (even though the protagonist knows).
Structure is about conveying a story in the most effective and impactful way possible. And what story elements you place where, how much you reveal to an audience, and when and how you make those reveals, all affect that goal.
Additionally, structure heavily affects your audience’s understanding of the plot, as well as the pacing of your story. How you set up the scenes, how plot points lead into each other, where you start a scene and where you end it… it’s all part of building the story — you’re framing the plot to have the most impact possible. In other words:
Plot deal with the information that needs to be conveyed. Structure deals with how and when that information is conveyed to the audience.
Examples will be drawn from It's a Wonderful Life and The Martian. Caution: There will be spoilers!
It’s a Wonderful Life is told primarily in a linear fashion. Yes, we see George’s youth through a series of “flashbacks” as shown to Clarence — but it’s all told in a fairly linear way for us, the audience. This structure allows for the alternate realities that Clarence reveals to George to occur without the film dealing with a double-flashback scenario back-to-back. It also allows the audience to see what George’s life was like before his financial devastation so that we have a better idea of who he is and why he’s contemplating suicide — which shows us that George’s desperate choices are derived from love for his family.
Could the story have implemented a different structure? Sure! But maybe it would have changed the story’s impact, changed our empathy for George, changed the story’s focus, or led audiences to infer a slightly different theme.
The Martian is also pretty linear (the movie more so than the book). To me, what makes the structure unique is how it changes as more and more people get pulled into helping Mark. When Mark wakes up, alone, on Mars, the story is told primarily from his perspective. No one knows he’s still alive except him, so the story focuses on Mark and only Mark. But as NASA learns that Mark’s alive, as they start helping Mark, as Mark’s fellow crew members decide to come back for him, the story begins spending more time with those characters… but it all still revolves around the main concept (Mark being stranded on Mars).
Could the story have been told solely from Mark’s perspective the entire time (e.g. only finding out how NASA was helping based on the correspondence Mark receives from them)? Sure! Could it have worked? Possibly. But it probably would have felt… smaller. Part of what makes the structure of The Martian so effective is that it demonstrates just how hard so many people had to work to help Mark — and that they were willing to do so. Actually seeing that within the story carries more impact than us simply hearing about NASA’s involvement from an email to Mark. In other words, the structure used for The Martian was the structure deemed most effective for conveying the plot and the concept (and leading to the theme).
HOW PLOT INTERRELATES
Structure, Plot and Theme
I think by this point you probably already have a pretty good idea how structure affects plot and theme.
How you structure your story will determine how effectively you convey the plot. If you don’t place the climax at the right time, for example, the audience might not know it was the climax — which means they’ll be waiting for an even bigger moment in the story that will never come. The climax might actually be a great climax, but if it isn’t placed correctly, it won’t carry the impact it should.
Again, it’s about getting to that most effective and engaging version of your story. What sequence of events will build to the most climactic ending and the most satisfying resolution? How can the story be structured to lead the audience to the conclusions (the themes) you want them to walk away with?
If you have an antagonist and a protagonist, and if both have opposing world views, how you structure the story can greatly affect whether the audience walks away thinking the protagonist was right — or if maybe the antagonist had a good point all along.
Bottom line, the idea is to find the most logical, structurally appropriate way to tell your story. The one that leads to the greatest impact and resonance. (You can tell a story backwards if you want, provided it leads the audience in the right direction.)
Okay, I think that sums things up for now. Up tomorrow? Formatting! But for now, remember:
Structure = Conveyance/Framework