Random Musings: Rethinking Story Structure

Over the holiday break, I was reading some short stories I had completed to choose something to read for the upcoming Full Sail Reading Series (the first one is this Thursday night at 7PM at Urban ReThink if you want to stop by!), and I ended up choosing a story currently titled “The Right Thing to Do.” I’ve changed the title of the story a half-dozen times or so at this point, and I don’t feel good about this one, so I don’t expect it to stick. But I digress.

Reading this story was an interesting exercise. I hadn’t looked at the story since I finished off this last draft over a year ago, so in a lot of ways, I was coming at it fresh. The story is set in a fantasy world, and is essentially an inner monologue of a young woman who has made a number of bad choices in life and is considering her future (and the future of her daughter).

What struck me about the story was the form of it: I had essentially written a character study of this unnamed protagonist and passed it off as a story. Maybe I am being a little harsh with myself by saying “passed off” because what is present here is certainly a story: there is a plot, it has a setting, and we have some characters for the plot to happen to. But it doesn’t change the fact that explaining this young woman was really the crux of this story.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the way we think about a story’s structure. What is a story? I think the most succinct definition of story I have seen was given by John D. MacDonald (crime author of the Travis McGee series—also wrote The Executioners, which was adapted into the movie Cape Fear). In the introduction to Stephen King’s Night Shift, he states that “a story is something happening to someone that we’ve been led to care about” (viii).

What he doesn’t mention is the form this has to take. We talk about the structure of a story (rising action, climax, resolution) and call it absolute. There’s a beginning, followed by a middle, and ending with an end. It is an immutable law of storytelling, but I think that sometimes we get married to that specific structure and lose sight of the fact that it can take many forms.

When you get down to it, it is the climax that is the only essential part of the equation. As MacDonald suggests, it’s that “something happening to someone” that drives our story. The rising action is there to help us care about that someone, and the resolution exists to justify the time we’ve spent reading the story. But regardless of how long (or little) we spend rising the action or detailing the fallout from everything that happens, the only part that really matters is the moment Harry defeats Voldemort, the moment Rick convinces Ilsa to leave on that plane, or the moment Rocky goes the distance with the champ. Everything else is just window dressing to make us care about that moment.

And because of that, a story can take many different forms. You can spend hundreds of pages incessantly giving us back-story, as J.R.R. Tolkien does in The Fellowship of the Ring. Or, you can do like Hemingway, and give us a story in six short words (For sale: baby shoes, never worn). You can throw things out there in apparent haphazard order like Quentin Tarantino (most famously in Pulp Fiction). Or, like the case of “The Right Thing to Do,” you can analyze a character to a point where a seemingly simple decision now seems important. The ultimate goal of the story isn’t how you get there, but just that you get there.

So get out there and get there.


MacDonald, J.D. (1978). Introduction. In Stephen King, Night Shift (vii-x). Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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