Defining Story Structure

Tom Vaughan
Dec 15, 2017 · 2 min read

Structure is your friend. Structure is there to help you tell your story in the best way possible. Structure is not formula, though thousands of years of storytelling has taught us a few best practices for the craft.

Simply defined:

Story Structure is choosing what the audience knows and when they know it in order to maximize dramatic effect.

That’s it. That’s all structure is. What the audience knows and when.

You will use structure whether you like it or not. You really have no choice. All you ever do when you are writing is decide what the audience knows and when they know it.

I am using structure as I write this sentence, putting one word in front of another, and using that order to convey what I intend to convey. Now, I may change these words around and something way this write. I am still utilizing structure, of course, I am just now utilizing it poorly (instead of writing “write something this way” I wrote “ something way this write”). As a result, my poor use of structure is actually sabotaging my desired effect rather than promoting it.

I am also utilizing structure in this writing in deciding what topic to discuss at one time, each building off the other with the hope of making the whole thing easier to comprehend.

Story structure works the same way. Using bits of information, small and large, in a particular order, in order to maximize the dramatic impact on the audience. Story structure has been refined over the centuries and the peculiar needs of cinema have refined it even more. It is a guideline. It is not a rule book. The proof will always be in the pudding.

There is nothing of inherent value in playing with or experimenting with structure. Its only value is whether it tells the story to better dramatic effect. Some stories are better told simply. Some are better told playing with expectations of story structure and delivering something else. Either way, the judgement will always be, “Does it work?” Does the structure you choose tell your story the best way you’re able to tell it?

But no matter your efforts to the contrary, you will always use some kind of structure. You can’t avoid it.

The only question will be whether you use structure in a way that elevates your desired effect or will you sabotage it by not paying enough attention to what the audience knows and when?

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I am teaching the story structure workshop in Dallas, TX on July 27th and Houston, TX August 24th. You can get information on either of these workshops at storyandplot.com.

Tom Vaughan

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A Texas screenwriter hiding out in Los Angeles. Co-Writer of WINCHESTER now available on digital. Sports fan of all teams Houston. #GoCoogs www.storyandplot.com