Would you believe that the key to telling a good story is following this series of specific but also vague steps? No? Good, because this week’s episode is all about how story structures don’t actually do what their proponents claim. We’ll talk about what story structure actually is, why you don’t actually have to arrange your story around arbitrary plot points, and what you should focus on instead. Also: despite great reluctance, we must admit Aristotle was right about something.
Generously transcribed by Space Pinapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Oren: And Oren.
Chris: (in a strange accent) Now step right up, folks, step right up. Let me tell you a story about a time I was lost and struggling as a writer, and I went traveling into the deep valleys of that continent you haven’t been to. And there I met a mystical people with an ancient structure, passed down for generations. After that, my writing was easy and original and I didn’t even need conflict. Now I’ve brought it back for you. This mystical, patented story structure will make your hero compelling and your love interests sexy, and your plot all twisty, and you’ll be a bestseller in no time. And you can do all of this if you just follow three simple steps.
Oren: I’ll take 12.
Wes: Oof. Well done getting through that. It must’ve been hard for you.
Oren: Is today’s podcast topic on Chris’s ability to do accents?
Chris: I don’t even know which accent I was doing. I don’t even know where that’s from.
Oren: I think that’s technically called a “scammer’s accent.”
Wes: Yes, I think you’re right.
Oren: That’s the accent that scammers have.
Chris: I was going for “old snake-oil salesman,” there.
Wes: Yup. You nailed it.
Chris: So, we’re talking about structure and what is structure and what could we consider a story structure to be? Because there are a lot of structures out there or things that call themselves structures. And we can debate whether they are structures or not. And part of the thing is that, when Oren and I have consultations with people, they usually are reading structures and advice elsewhere, which is just them doing their due diligence, you know, from sources that appear to be reputable. And then they come to us and they’re like, well, this structure told me to do this.And I try not to say, well, your structure is full of crap. That’s not a polite thing to tell somebody, but it is a problem because oftentimes these do include some bad advice or are just needlessly restrictive.
Oren: Yeah. And I mean, most of them are just people sharing things without really understanding how story structure works, and as a result, sharing unhelpful advice. But some of them charge for it and it’s like, great. Now you’ve upgraded it from bad advice to a scam. Congratulations. But I talk to clients and I’m like, why did you put this in there? Well, I put this in there because the story says that I have to start with the character in a comfort zone. And then five steps later, they have to get the thing they wanted, but to pay a heavy price for winning. Do you want that in your story? Because you don’t need that. If you want it, great. But it sounds like you don’t, you put it in there because someone told you you had to.
Wes: Well, they’re not only telling them that they have to. Chris said this with her snake-oil pitch at the start. The appeal is not only around getting the words down, but “bestsellers use these structures.” There’s a notion that success comes with structure. All the best writers and the bestsellers are using this. So they’re getting fed this lie that this can work for you too, and it’d all be worth it. Even if you don’t see it now, you will put your beautiful genius into this structure and make a shitload of money, I guess.
Oren: Just to get the adulation of your peers.
Chris: And I think the big part of the problem is that, when you have people who want something, even if it’s a bit unrealistic, somebody will come to sell that to them. And people don’t understand storytelling well enough to distinguish between what is real and what is not, and what works and what doesn’t. So it creates an environment where it’s really easy for somebody to come in there and be like, Hey, this will totally do it for you. And maybe they even think it does, because I’ll kind of explain why it’s easy to create the illusion that a structure works when it’s not actually helping people. But first, I just thought I’d discuss what qualifies as structure. And we might have different opinions on this. People might have different opinions on what is structure and storytelling, and that’s fine.
But I think, when we say the word structure, it at least brings to mind something that’s kind of like the walls of a house. Or maybe the wood beams that are actually holding up the house, that structural support, as opposed to the siding of the house, or the decor inside or outside the house, or the people in the house. It determines where the house or the story starts, where it ends. It’s kind of like size and dimensions. And most importantly, it’s the thing that if you remove it, the whole thing collapses. So it needs to be necessary at some level. But the other thing is that a good structure should also just get out of the way of choices that are kind of subjective or more like artistic decisions, so it shouldn’t tell you what your house should look like. Just make sure your house is actually a house that functions for a certain purpose. And I think the big problem that I’m seeing is that a lot of the structures out there, I don’t feel like they perform this. They don’t actually give people the support beams that hold up their house—or not—effectively, and some of them encourage people to make houses that collapse. And some of them focus a lot on the decor, which is specifying things that are just kind of unnecessary and should be more of an artistic decision.
Oren: And we don’t subscribe to the idea that anything will work in your story. There are objective things you can do to make your story better or worse, but most of them have nothing to do with these story structures that are circulated, like the Hero’s Journey, the Three Act structure. I was just referencing Story Circle, which is apparently a tool that the guy who does Rick and Morty uses. None of that touches on the things that actually are required to make a story work. They’re just sort of telling you to do kind of random stuff that is often both weirdly confining and also exceptionally vague at the same time.
Chris: I do think that, again, when people are looking for, “oh, geez, I have this whole novel to plot. What should I put in there?” Sometimes something like the Hero’s Journey that’s like, “do this, do this, do this” might be attractive, partly because A) it looks simple, B) it actually is vague enough that they can do whatever they want. And maybe for some people it works like a story prompt, and if you benefit from that, that’s totally fine, if you like getting these prompts for what to do next. I think the problem comes when you assume that’s what plotting is, because that’s not what makes your plot work. It’s kind of a problem, and we already have some stuff on the site about these structures and what’s wrong with them, but I can also just kind of describe in general what the issue is, and the biggest problem that I’m seeing is that people have a tendency to focus on aspects of the story that are obvious and tangible and specific, because that’s easier for us to identify.
So if we have lots of folk tales of characters going traveling, and we’re trying to figure out what makes those folktales work, we focus on the fact that the character is leaving home, or “crossing the threshold,” (laughter) as it were, or returning home. And that’s all stuff that’s part of Hero’s Journey or the Three Act structures, this leaving home and returning home. That’s obviously based on stories that were about travel. And we can make it metaphorical, but then, when we make it metaphorical, it could start to mean anything, and it’s no longer very helpful.
Oren: Be really cautious when a piece of writing advice tells you that something is metaphorical, because at that point it’s like, well, that could be literally anything. If you’re talking about a metaphorical journey, well, great. Anything a character does could be considered a metaphorical journey.
Chris: And the problem is that the things that are actually story structure that are holding the story up, it’s less the specifics, it’s more the feelings that you evoke in the reader. But that’s just much less tangible. It’s more complicated to understand, it’s less noticeable. When you look at a story, you have to really start paying attention to how the story works to see those parts. The beams in the wall are hidden. You can’t see the wood beams that are holding up your house. You see the surfacing of the wall. So I think that’s part of why we end up with this problem. But what it means is that structure is similar to the Three Act or Hero’s Journey. They have a tendency to kind of list a series of events.
You do step one, you “cross the threshold,” then you get to “trials,” for instance, you get “resurrected,” but they’re all disconnected. They’re just a “do this, do that, do this,” but they don’t include anything about how those events relate to each other, so people will do that, and they’ll end up with a story that doesn’t have a plot, because I can come up with a crossing of a threshold and trials and a resurrection that just have nothing to do with each other, because the things that are actually supposed to connect a story together aren’t there.
Oren: Right. And you’re just checking things off a list. You’re putting them in there, but with no understanding of why they need to be in there, or if you even want them there. Very often, you might even have a workable plot. I had a client recently—who shall remain nameless—who talked themselves out of a perfectly decent plot because the structure they thought they were supposed to be following, didn’t allow it. This is a real thing that happens. And I just wish that authors would realize that the people who write these books often have no idea what they’re talking about, and basically, only pay attention to us. (laughter) I’m sorry. There’s no way to say this that doesn’t just sound really full of ourselves. But at the very least, I promise that I will never tell you that I know what needs to be in your story, and that I can just tell you the things to put in it, and then you can put them in and you will have it solved. I promise to never make that pitch.
Chris: But you just follow these easy steps and get a bestseller. We will not tell you that, we promise.
Wes: I mean, that’s a problem of dissection in general, right? To pick up Chris’s house metaphor again, it’s like they gut the house and they show you a frame, but is a frame a house? Because you’re selling a frame, but you’re not telling people what you need to do to it to make it into a house. You’re just saying, this is a frame, but I’m going to sell it to you as a house, but you need to live in a house and you need all the other things that go on the structure of the house to make it a house. And that’s what Chris is talking about. You shouldn’t be able to see it, because the foundation of the house or apartment that you live in is not what you interact with.
Chris: I would argue it’s actually the reverse that’s going on. So these structures, they are not including the beams in the house, they’re including the couch. But you don’t need a couch in your house if you don’t want one. You can have other things to sit on, or other pieces of furniture. If you don’t know about the beams and you assume that these structures are going to provide that structural support, because they promised you, usually, and you just follow their directions and you start filling up your house with various pieces of optional furniture, then that roof just falls down because you didn’t have any beams holding it up.
Wes: Right. Okay, yeah. There we go. We at Mythcreants will offer you true foundational stuff, is what we’re saying, right? Everybody else is selling us crappy furniture.
Chris: When they seem to work, what happens is that the specifics of the “structure” are not actually what’s making them work. So for instance, I have a post on the Hero’s Journey that breaks us down for Star Wars: A New Hope, which is famous for using the Hero’s Journey, and where I look at, okay, if we outline A New Hope by the Hero’s Journey events, it makes it look like the Hero’s Journey is what makes A New Hope work as a story, but it’s not. And you can make something that fills all of those Hero’s Journey stages that is about Luke in the Star Wars world that is an absolute disaster.
What actually makes A New Hope work is something that is not specified in the Hero’s Journey. So people who are already, at a subconscious level, understand story structure, they will use the Hero’s Journey events, and then kind of supply that structure because they already, at some level, know what it is, because they’ve built those skills. And then they can think that the Hero’s Journey did that, when actually, they did that, and the Hero’s Journey was just a flavor. It was just a couch that they put in their house.
Oren: You have to understand that the reason that it looks like A New Hope uses Vogel’s Hero’s Journey is that Vogel wrote that book after A New Hope came out, and clearly modeled that to try to follow A New Hope as much as possible. And it’s sort of based on Campbell, but not really, because Campbell is impossible to understand and contradicts himself constantly, if you actually try to read his book, which you shouldn’t, it will waste your time. What I really feel happened, is that Lucas was a fan of Campbell, for whatever reason. Lucas has a lot of weird ideas and was like, “yeah, Campbell definitely influenced Star Wars.” “You sure?” “Maybe it did. I don’t know.”
And then Vogel was like, “oh man, I’m going to distill that down,” and wrote a structure that more or less looks like the first Star Wars movie and was like here, look, see how well it matches the Star Wars movie that came out before I published this book? What are the odds?
Chris: But what he put in that Hero’s Journey structure is still not what we would, at Mythcreants, call story structure. It’s still just some things that you can put in your story. And some of those things do encourage you to create conflict intention, like if you say that your characters should die, even if it’s metaphorical, it’s at least gonna encourage people to make their stories more exciting. But for the most part, it doesn’t really give people the instruction that they’re looking for. And we have lots of writers out there who really want to learn and are just looking for good, reputable materials that will teach them storytelling. And this is what they get—this stuff that promises things that it can not deliver on.
Oren: When I look at these structures, the ones that have sold a lot of books, what it really looks like is that the people writing these watched a bunch of movies and noticed that some of the movies did similar things at certain points, but didn’t understand why the movies did those things or what purpose it was for. So they just noted that down and then tried to make it vague. Syd Field’s Three Act structure desperately looks like that. There are just parts in it where it’s like, this book was published two years after A New Hope came out. This definitely feels like a plot point from Star Wars: A New Hope, but made vague in the hopes that it will apply to other movies.
Chris: One thing that I notice a lot is things that I would call incidental, which means that they are things that are likely to appear in a story that’s well-constructed, but you can’t just tell a writer to put that in a story and get good results. An example that I think is incidental would be structures that tell writers that there should be different values or feelings or moods at the beginning and end of a scene. I suspect that if you have the same mood all the time, you’re lacking movement. But that doesn’t mean that the answer to that is to then put in a bunch of different moods. You know, the answer is to actually push the story forward so that things change and not get repetitive. But when I see writers trying to just like, “okay, let me define the mood or the value at the beginning of the scene and the end of the scene,” it’s always incredibly forced. And it’s like, no, just give your character natural emotions, please. Just give them obstacles that they have to struggle with, move that forward, and then give them the natural feelings and emotions and values that they would have, because that’s something where you can’t just create that sense of movement in the story by just inserting new feelings.
Oren: Right. If you have tension in the story and things that cause tension happening and you have your characters react to them, the mood will change on its own. You don’t have to be assigning yourself different moods that the story needs to have at the end of each scene; it’s just creating a bunch of extra work for yourself, and it has a very good chance of making your story just feel bizarre, because you’re trying to force these weird mood changes.
Chris: It’s especially bad if writers try to apply a structure after they’ve already started a draft, because then they’ve already kind of established what the story’s about. And a lot of times things become very forced, which in any revision to your story to try to improve it, that can happen, but let’s not make things unnecessarily hard for ourselves. Writing’s hard enough. Just to circle back round to what we would consider to be structure at Mythcreants, so we can explain what the difference is between what we would consider real structure in what the popular structures that are being sold to people are. Really the only thing that significantly performs that role of those beams that are holding up the house and a story is tension. It’s just tension all the way down.
Wes: Tension beams?
Chris: Again, tension is a lot less tangible than “make your character cross a threshold.” It’s a feeling that you evoke. And it’s the feeling that, when you start a story and it feels unfinished, that’s tension. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize because it can be at pretty low levels. But for instance, if Red Riding Hood goes to her grandmother’s house and has to go through the woods and she isn’t there yet, there’s been a lot of association with travel and danger. There’s a reason, oftentimes after people go on a flight, they will contact their family, let them know they made it okay, even though flights today are pretty routine. So tension is like that kind of uncertainty, and it can scale up to be extremely exciting and have big cliff-hangers, but even at low levels, we can tell that it’s there, and it’s the sense that something has started and there’s uncertainty about the outcome, and we have to know what happens next. And that is the thing that kind of glues a series of events together into a story, and makes it feel like it has a starting point and an ending point. And if you have more glue, you have stronger beams and a more robust structure. So that’s kind of what real structure is made of.
And we’ve talked about, in other episodes, and we have blog posts about the fact that any story is going to use multiple startings and endings that form kind of a fractal pattern, which is flexible and has tons and tons of possibilities. And then you can do it in lots of different ways, which is the other problem, is that, when people want to sell a structure, they want it to be easy, but stories have so many possibilities that it’s really hard to come up with something that is you-specific that has any applicability beyond only a few stories.
Oren: Although, at the same time, it’s also worth noting that the tension advice we’re giving—these are specific things that you have to do. There are a lot of ways to get them, but a scene can have tension or not have tension, and it needs to have it at some level, as opposed to “crossing the threshold,” which is so vague that it can be basically anything. So it doesn’t actually restrict you from doing whatever you want, whereas us saying that your story needs tension does, ‘cuz that means you now have to do something to create tension, which is one of the more unpopular things we say.
Chris: There’s almost unlimited actual story situations that you can use when creating tension. It’s not about the specifics of what’s in the story. You can do whatever you want, but it’s about a specific feeling, and there is a specific recipe that you use to create that feeling, and that’s what really drives the story. So it’s just a different way of looking at things, and it’s almost like the structures we’re seeing are specific in the wrong way, where they’re defining things that are more subjective and up to artistic choice, and not the things that actually make audiences get engaged in the story, which is kind of what we’re looking for.
So something like the Three Act structure, which is—this one is the most frustrating, because people treat it like it’s conventional wisdom. It’s the conventional wisdom structure, and people are just like, oh, well, somebody authoritative told me that stories follow the Three Act structure, so that’s just a factual thing about stories, but it’s bad and it’s not good.
Oren: Well, what I learned from looking into the Three Act structure for an article that may or may not be out by the time this podcast is released, is that the Three Act structure isn’t real, and that you can divide anything into three acts if you want to. We’re in the third act of this podcast right now, actually Other than that, once you zoom in past the fact that the story should be divided into three sections, no two versions of the Three Act structure agree on anything. And maybe they’ll say there needs to be a climax, cause that’s a common enough piece of advice that it often works its way into Three Act structures, but they don’t tell ya what a climax is or what purpose it serves or how to get one or why it is helped by dividing your story into three sections. It’s just nothing. It’s a fake thing. And it came from nowhere, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t even have an agreed-upon origin. Some people will point to Aristotle, but that’s very shaky.
Chris: I don’t think Aristotle specified three acts. What he did specify is basically conflict and a turning point in a resolution. So the triangle that you saw in grade school, that’s as much as Aristotle knew, but he also understood movement, which is not typically taught in many places. So this is 2300 years ago, over 2000 years ago, and Aristotle was slightly above the level of conventional wisdom that most people are given.
Oren: I was like, guys, I need you to understand how sad that is. Aristotle is a man who was wrong about almost everything, but apparently, he still understood storytelling better than a lot of people do today. And it’s upsetting and I don’t like it. I don’t like Aristotle. I don’t like having to say Aristotle’s right.
Chris: But he didn’t understand stories that well, he just understood stories slightly better than a lot of people today. But anyway, the Three Act structure—even the more sophisticated versions—they don’t have anything that is better than that simple “start it, have a climax, and resolve it.” They don’t have anything more meaningful. Probably the thing that gets my goat the most is this idea of the inciting incident, because it’s technically real, but it’s wrong at the same time. So when we talk about how a story starts, basically, we create tension. That’s how it starts. Story is tension, essentially. And that’s what the inciting incident is. But, according to conventional Three Act structure wisdom, it doesn’t start at the beginning, it starts later. And the reason is because, in a lot of traditional stories, which—here’s the thing, everybody wants to believe that our folk tales are just as good and valid as stories today.
They don’t want to admit that we’ve gotten better, because they don’t think of stories as a craft, or something that you engineer, or something that is knowledge-based. But it is. So we have gotten better over time, and we have lots of stories where there’s just a whole bunch of rambling exposition at the beginning, but that’s not actually good. That’s just an artifact of creating context so that the story can actually start. And the more that you can minimize that or get rid of it, the better. And we have the stories that just start with opening the main arc of the story, stories like All Systems Red, the first book of the Murder-Bot Diaries. Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, which has a great opening that just starts the story. They don’t do this whole, Hey, let’s ramble for a while, and now there’s an inciting incident. And they are better for it. So technically, the inciting incident is a real part of story structure. But if you say “inciting incident,” that implies that that is coming later, and that you’re just kinda dickering around for a while.
Chris: Right. When you say “inciting incident,” people imagine like from Star Wars, when Luke meets the droids for the first time, which is kind of an unusual situation, because Star Wars starts before we meet Luke. In the rough cut, we met Luke earlier and it was boring, so they cut that stuff out. But in the theatrical release, we don’t meet Luke until a ways into the story, and the story has already started by that point, so Luke is joining a story already in progress. But that’s a pretty unusual way to do things, especially if you’re writing a novel. Most novels wouldn’t start that way.
Chris: Yeah. I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible for us to create different structures, per se, that work for different stories. We’ve taught about episodic structure and how that’s different from a story that’s really overarcing, as an example. So you can take that story fractal, and it’s possible to arrange it different ways and be like, okay, this is a specific formation of that fractal. So it’s not impossible to have different structures that you could hand out for different stories. But right now, that’s not what’s being done. And there’s also things like the daisy-chain plotting, which isn’t really about the structure of the story itself, it’s about if there’s a main character featured, but a lot of people think about plots in terms of the character, so I can understand why they would consider that a different structure, even if that’s not how we define structure.
Oren: Daisy-chain plotting gets a lot of weird, false advertisement that, as far as I can tell, the person who invented it never asked for. I don’t actually know for sure who invented it. Farthest I could get back was a blog post of 2013 from an author whose name is escaping me, but I’ll link it in the show notes. And she may have invented it, or she may not have. She doesn’t claim that she did, but I couldn’t find anything older.
Chris: I also have forgotten to mention to people that I have coined the terms that I’ve coined, and that can be misleading, too. So I could totally understand if it was hers.
Oren: But all it is, is an idea to have a story that follows a single object around, instead of a single protagonist. That post has nothing to do with conflict or tension. It doesn’t mention either of those words, but people are always saying, “use daisy-chain plot if you don’t want conflict.” That’s like saying, “use a truck if you don’t want bread.” They have nothing to do with each other. They’re completely unrelated.
Chris: Right. Basically, the daisy-chain would change absolutely nothing about plotting structure, from Mythcreants’s standpoint. Now, there’s other reasons why we think most stories benefit from focusing on a single main character, but that doesn’t actually change anything. So in summary, if you have a structure that you’ve been following and it is genuinely helpful to your writing—it gives you prompts and ideas, or something like that—that’s perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we do want to caution people against treating these structures as things that they have to do to make their story good, or trusting them to make your story good. If they’re helpful to your process, that’s great. The most important thing is that you understand how stories work, and that does take time. Unfortunately, it’s not simple and easy steps. But once you do that, you have a lot of freedom, and a very specific structure can never really be everything to everyone, because stories are just too varied.
Oren: And with that, we’ve reached the end of act three of this podcast.
Chris: Are we going to return home with the elixir?
Oren: Yeah, presumably, the elixir being the end credits. Speaking of which, I want to thank a few of our patrons for providing us with the elixir of Patreon money. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory and Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
This has been the Mythcreants podcast.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?